The Los Angeles Lakers have a comfortable lead atop the Western Conference as the calendar turns to 2020. The Lakers have two leading candidates for MVP in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They have a top-five offense and top-five defense. They have found a way to turn a group of seemingly uninspiring role players into a solid supporting cast for their two superstars.
Everything is going great right now in Lakers land, but this team was never going to be judged by how it performed in January. The Lakers’ aspirations have always been championship-or-bust. That’s why Kyle Kuzma’s name has started to pop up in rumors with the trade deadline approaching.
Teams are “doing their due diligence” on Kuzma, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. The Lakers are willing to listen to offers, even if their preference is reportedly to make moves around the margins rather than look for a major shakeup. The Sacramento Kings have even tried to engage the Lakers in a deal that would reportedly need to include Bogdan Bogdanovic, per Marc Stein of the New York Times.
A championship favorite looking to cash in a young piece for an immediate contributor wouldn’t feel so notable if not for the particulars involved. The Lakers were adamant on protecting Kuzma in their trade package for Davis over the summer. He exists as the biggest draft steal on the resume of general manager Rob Pelinka, who picked him at No. 27 overall. Kuzma is also something of a burgeoning underground cultural icon who exudes a certain persona that has always been a natural fit in LA.
These reports have been framed in a way that suggests teams are coming to the Lakers on Kuzma, and not the other way around. In reality, it’s the Lakers who stand to be the biggest beneficiary of a Kuzma trade if they can find another player who fits their playoff rotation more precisely. This is why the Lakers would be smart to move on from their 24-year-old forward if a quality deal is on the table.
Kuzma hasn’t proven to be a fully reliable offensive player yet
Kuzma has had some huge individual games as a scorer. He scored 41 points in three quarters last season against the Pistons. He scored 38 points against the Rockets as a rookie. He dropped 25 points on the Clippers on Christmas Day this season.
While his best moments have a way of sticking with you, Kuzma has yet to prove himself as a plus on the offensive end on a consistent basis.
Kuzma is slightly below average in terms of his scoring efficiency, and he’s been become a less efficient scorer in every year of his career so far. He adds little value as a playmaker for his teammates. He doesn’t draw fouls consistently. After 174 games as a pro, Kuzma has also been a slightly below average three-point shooter, which is supposed to be his calling card as a player.
Kuzma’s offensive impact
|Kyle Kuzma||2019-2020||Career stats|
|Kyle Kuzma||2019-2020||Career stats|
|Free throw rate||20.7||21.4|
|Three point percentage||34.6||33.7|
Kuzma’s offense doesn’t hold up well under the view of all-in-one advanced metrics, either. He’s grading out this year as a -1.1 on offense per PIPM, a -3.2 on offense in 538’s RAPTOR, and has a -2.8 offensive BPM.
Offense is supposed to be Kuzma’s strong suit, but his numbers haven’t been all that impressive over his three-year career. That’s even troubling given his clunky fit on the Lakers.
Kuzma isn’t a perfect fit in the Lakers’ closing lineup
The Lakers already feel like they’ve secured a top playoff seed — at this point, it would take a major shakeup for them not to be No. 1 overall in the West. Right now, the Lakers’ top objective should be figuring out their playoff rotations, with an added emphasis on maximizing a closing lineup they can use against the best teams in the league.
Every player in the Lakers’ closing lineup needs to help James and Davis be the best version of themselves. In the playoffs, that likely means Davis is closing at center and James is closing at power forward. Ideally, the Lakers want to surround them with two shooters who are a plus defensively on the perimeter and able to contribute on the glass, as well as a guard who can get the ball up the court and run a pick-and-roll when the ball is forced out of James’ hands.
The Lakers have one very good option in Danny Green at shooting guard. Their options at the other two positions are Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, and Kuzma. While each of those players have had their moments this year, the Lakers are right to look for an upgrade after seeing what the Clippers’ closing lineup can do on Christmas Day.
Kuzma just isn’t an ideal fit at small forward when the games slow down in the playoffs because of his lack of ball handling, playmaking, and defense. It might be a different story if he was consistently a 40 percent three-point shooter or a lockdown defender, but he’s never been that. If a short-term upgrade is out there, the Lakers shouldn’t hesitate to make a move.
Who can the Lakers get for Kuzma?
It isn’t a surprise that teams would be interested in Kuzma for a few different reasons. He’s still only 24 years, has great size 6’9 and 220 pounds, has another year left on his rookie contract, and has shown flashes of hot shooting potential. For all of these reasons, the Lakers should be able to find an immediate upgrade on the trade market for a team that thinks it can continue to develop Kuzma long-term.
Kuzma’s $1.9 million contract is going to make it difficult to match salaries in a trade, but there are options out there. The reported deal with Sacramento for Bogdanovic would be a massive win for the Lakers. Bogdanovic is a more reliable shooter and a far superior ball handler and passer. He’s be a nice match next to James, Davis, and Green, especially on the offensive end.
Derrick Rose could be another option. The Pistons are on the precipice of a major rebuild, and Rose doesn’t fit into their long-term future. He’s under contract for just over $7 million and would give the Lakers an athletic guard who can run offense and get to the basket. Marcus Morris on the Knicks and Andre Iguodala of Memphis are other options, but the latter would likely require a third team to match salaries.
The Lakers’ draft capital is limited after the Davis trade. They only have so many ways to upgrade the roster for the championship push. Kuzma is a sentimental favorite because he’s an organizational success story dating back to the draft. He’s also young and has room to grow in his skill set. Moving on from a player like Kuzma isn’t easy, but there are no moral victories in this season for the Lakers. It’s about winning the championship. For that reason, more than anything else, the Lakers are right to look for an upgrade.